“Huh? What Did You Say?” Teaching Students to Ask for Clarification

“Huh? What Did You Say?” Teaching Students to Ask for Clarification

One day I was preparing my students to go out and survey university students on campus. We were reviewing tips for speaking with native speakers.

Me: “What do you say if someone says something you don’t understand?”
Students: “I’m sorry. Can you say that again?”
Me: “Good. Now what do you say if you still don’t understand them?”
Students (in unison): “You say ’Thank you. Have a nice day’ and run away.”

I had to laugh. We’ve all been there. When you have to ask someone to repeat something more than once, it’s easier just to run away or smile and nod and hope they didn’t ask anything that requires a real response. Non-native speaking students encounter this problem frequently in their daily life and need to be equipped with the necessary tools to avoid a breakdown should they run into problems.
Here are some tips to consider when teaching students how to ask for clarification

How to Teach Students to Ask for Clarification

  1. 1

    Teach the Cultural Norm

    There isn’t just one way to let someone know that you didn’t understand. The culturally appropriate response may vary based on geographical location, formality of the situation, and type of relationship between the speakers. For example, when talking with close friends, it’s appropriate to say, “Huh?” If you’re in the southern U.S., the best response is “Ma’am?” or “Sir?”
    Explain to your students the importance of register and teach a variety of ways to indicate confusion such as the following:

    I’m sorry. Could you repeat that please?
    I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. Could you please say that again slowly?
    You said…. ?
    Did you say X or Y?
    Excuse me?
    What was that?
    Say that again please?
    I’m sorry, I don’t understand what ______ means.

    Be sure to tell them that certain common expression can have other meanings. For example, if students responded with “What did you say?” the listener might be confused and think that the student was offended rather than confused. This is also a good time to bring up intonation.

  2. 2

    If at First You Don’t Succeed - Write it Down!

    Asking someone to repeat themselves once is normal. Twice can be a bit daunting because you may end up having to ask a third time. If students are feeling nervous and really unsure of what the speaker said after the first time, tell students to ask the person to write it down. Tell students to keep a small notebook and pen with them at all times. If the person writes it down, not only will they be able to better understand, they will have a running list of complicated words and phrases that they can then bring back to class for further review.

  3. 3

    Speak How You Want to be Spoken to

    If someone at a restaurant or a store is speaking too quickly for students, instruct students to speak louder and more slowly themselves. Often we emulate the people we are talking to, so if your students speak louder and slower, the person they are interacting with may as well. This will prevent the need for asking for clarification and hopefully avoid any embarrassing situations.

  4. 4

    Don’t Panic!

    The easiest thing to do is get frustrated and give up, but the only way to improve is to continue to try. Instruct students not to panic if they encounter a complicated listening situation. If they panic, they won’t be able to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, and their listening comprehension will only worsen. Remind students that listening takes practice and inevitably they will encounter a situation where they can’t understand someone. If you keep enforcing the idea that this is normal, they will feel less anxious when encountering these situations in real life.

How to Practice in the Classroom

  1. 1

    Create Role Plays

    Design situations and role plays where one student misunderstands the other. After teaching the various ways to ask for clarification, have students practice several of these phrases in role plays.

    Suggested role plays:
    Customer service representative on the phone
    Fast food worker and customer
    Business meeting negotiations
    Teacher and student regarding missed homework assignment
    Doctor’s receptionist scheduling an appointment for a patient
    Bank teller and someone wanting to open a new account

  2. 2

    Use Cell Phones

    Have students practice the above role plays on their phones in different rooms. Phone conversations can be the most difficult (for native speakers too!) because there are no body language cues, and students must rely just on their listening comprehension. Since students love their cell phones so much, have some students leave the room and then call each other.

  3. 3

    Missing Information Scenarios

    Using various role plays, give students key information for the role plays. Students need to practice filling in missing information, like phone numbers or addresses and must ask clarifying questions to get the information.

  4. 4

    Practice with New Vocabulary Words

    Sometimes listening confusion happens because of poor listening skills, but sometimes it’s because of a limited vocabulary. To practice asking about specific vocabulary related misunderstandings, do role plays with complex or new vocabulary. Give each student a list of new vocabulary words along with the definitions. If you have very advanced students, you could also use nonsense words. During the role plays, have students use these new vocabulary words in their lines, thus prompting the other student to ask for the definition of that word.

  5. 5

    Share Learning Stories

    Language learning is full of mishaps and misunderstandings, and while they may be embarrassing at the time, they often make for great stories later! Encourage your students to share with each other some funny instances of not understanding to help them feel more comfortable with the idea that they won’t always understand everything.

  6. 6

    Teach Writing Miscommunication

    Misunderstandings aren’t limited to spoken interaction. Plenty of e-mails and letters can result in miscommunication as well, even more so due to the lack of intonation. Have some time to practice writing clarification questions in e-mails as well. Explain that writing is generally more formal, so they should use the more formal forms of asking for clarification.

  7. 7

    Teach Real Listening

    Too often, the listening dialogues presented in books don’t reflect what’s actually spoken.

    For example, a dialogue in a fast food restaurant as shown in a book might look like this:
    Cashier: Hello. Welcome to Fast Food Heaven. What would you like to order?
    Customer: I would like a number 5 please.
    Cashier: Would you like fries or a salad with that?
    Customer: I would like fries please.
    Cashier: What would you like to drink?
    Customer: A coke.
    Cashier: Great. So that’s a number 5 with fries and a coke. Your total is $6.95. Are you paying with cash or credit card?
    Customer: Cash. Here you go.
    Cashier: Thank you. Your order can be picked up at the end of the counter. Have a great day.

    When in reality, most fast food conversations go like this:
    Cashier: Hi.
    Customer: Can I have a number 5 please?
    Cashier: Fries or salad?
    Customer: Fries.
    Cashier: Drink?
    Customer: A coke.
    Cashier: $6.95.
    Customer: Ok.
    Cashier: Pick it up over there.

    Prepare your students with real dialogue practice so they won’t be overly flustered or confused when cashiers don’t speak how they thought they would. The more prepared they can be, the better they will be able to comprehend.


Not understanding someone when they speak is a part of daily life for all of us.

To help with the lack of cultural understanding and language difficulties, we need to arm our students with back-up plans by teaching them phrases and expectations for listening in the real world.


How do you prepare students for misunderstandings?

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